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Regents approve regs to expand college ‘distance education’

New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, seen in

New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, seen in February, said on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, that the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement can provide savings and safeguards for students. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

The state Board of Regents on Tuesday unanimously approved new regulations that would help colleges and universities in New York more easily offer their online courses across state lines, a measure that likely will expand the state’s virtual higher education market.

New York, by signing the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, or SARA, will allow public and private colleges and universities — both nonprofit and for-profit — to join in interstate offering of postsecondary online education courses and programs. SARA establishes national standards for 42 other states and territories.

The regulations also permit out-of-state institutions to provide online courses and degrees, known as distance education, to New York residents. Before SARA, colleges had to go through a lengthy and often costly process in each individual state to begin offering courses there. Some colleges refrained from enrolling students in certain states because of the process.

“Savings for higher education institutions can help bring down costs for students as well as provide safeguards in the online marketplace,” state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

Critics, however, including consumer advocates and labor unions, said that in joining the group the state Education Department could potentially expose students to the unethical practices of online degree programs. The group worries that low-income students would be hit hardest, taking on debt from for-profit companies with large online learning operations.

Nearly three dozen organizations, including advocates from the New York Public Interest Research Group and the Alliance for Quality Education of New York, signed a March letter to Elia opposing the state’s participation in SARA.

“Today’s action by the Regents was driven not by an interest in protecting consumers but by the desire of in-state colleges to expand their market to out-of-state online students,” said Robert Shireman, senior fellow with the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan that signed the letter. “Unfortunately, in taking this step the state is turning over responsibility to an out-of-state group that has no incentive to be responsive to the needs of New York students.”

About 1,100 universities, colleges and other postsecondary institutions nationwide that offer online instruction now are SARA participants. Of those, 67 percent are public, 29 percent are private and 4 percent are for-profit.

New York’s joining in the pact would provide standards and safeguards for New York students taking online courses offered by out-of-state entities, according to state education officials, who first began discussing SARA in January 2015.

Shireman applauded the Regents for requiring out-of-state colleges to comply with New York laws if they are not part of SARA. Out-of-state colleges’ offerings of online courses to New York residents previously were not screened.

Under the regulations, the state attorney general’s office retains its ability to take action against higher education institutions that violate consumer protection laws.

Because of SARA, Elia said, students will be able to determine whether colleges offering online instruction are approved, leading to more consumer protection.

“If you see the number of institutions advertising on television, you know that’s important information for New York students to have,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting of the Regents in Albany.

New York Institute of Technology professor Stan Silverman, who chairs the online learning department, said the colleges were eager to get the regulations passed.

Silverman believes the move will increase competition in online learning and, as a result, the quality of the programs will improve. Online classes are particularly helpful to working students and those seeking greater flexibility.

NYIT has two campuses in the state: one in Old Westbury and another in Manhattan. The school was among the first to embrace online learning for both graduate and undergraduate students.

Silverman said it is a higher education delivery model that will grow as the technology gets better.

“Institutions that 10 years ago said we would never do this are quickly moving into the market,” Silverman said. “The consumer, the student, wants this.”

Groups representing many of the colleges across the state — including those within the State University of New York, the City University of New York and The Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities in New York — endorsed the state Education Department’s participation in SARA.

“It became essential that New York join SARA so that the barriers our campuses currently face in providing high-quality online educational programs to students across the country may be lifted,” said Holly Liapis, spokeswoman for the 64-campus state university system.

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